By Mike Johnston
Forty millimeters has long been my favorite focal length for 35mm cameras. I got "turned on" to the focal length when I interviewed Sally Mann (right, by Molly Roberts) for Camera & Darkroom magazine in the 1980s. She told me she had supported her artwork in the early days by doing lots of small freelance jobs, including many for the local military academy. She used Olympus OM cameras, and she said that if she were going to do any artwork in 35mm she would use the 40mm ƒ/2 Zuiko. We talked about the focal length for a while, but all I remember now is Sally saying that 40mm is "about right." That's what started my interest in 40mms.
A few years later, looking for a "Leica with AE," I became aware of the Minolta CLE. It, too, had a 40mm normal lens—the Minolta 40mm ƒ/2 M-Rokkor. This turned out to be one of the best lenses I've ever used, fantastically sharp and smooth. My friend John Kennerdell, a photographer who lived in Bangkok at the time, told me that one Japanese connoisseur had dubbed it "the Water Lens." Curiously, it was one of the only lenses I've ever used that consistently drew positive comments about sharpness and clarity from non-photographers looking at my prints.
The latest addition to the short list is of course the Cosina/Voigtländer 40mm ƒ/1.4 Nokton, the first lens of its specification ever. It can be extremely sharp and contrasty when shown off at its best, and for a fast lens it has pretty good bokeh—a term that just refers to the appearance of the out-of-d.o.f. blur, whatever you may have read elsewhere!
I've found as a general rule that bokeh gets progressively more problematic: a) the larger the aperture, b) the closer the focus, c) the more distant the background, and d) the more contrasty the background. With any lens, we discover our own limits for what we'll tolerate, and then shoot within those limits. For instance, with the 4th-version 35mm Summicron (pre-ASPH), I would never shoot wide open because the contrast was just too low for me (and sometimes the vignetting was objectionable, too). Overall, the more shots I've seen taken with the 40mm Nokton Classic, the more serviceable it seems. If you keep the plane of focus reasonably distant and watch the background, even ƒ/1.4 seems usable in point of vignetting, contrast, and center sharpness. Not a bad result at all for a small, fast lens.
Richard Sintchak, Ben and Amy at the Counter, 40mm Nokton S.C. (single-coated)
Of course, no focal length is magic. Many photographers have different favorites. As long as they're in the right hands, most common focal lengths can be used to make pictures that are excellent. So why 40mm? I'd say that the 40mm focal length is special precisely because it's not special. Purely by convention, 50mm has long been considered the "normal" focal length for 35mm photography. Early WA's were 35mm. Many photographers have made a choice between these two focal lengths as their own "normals." Many, like myself, have switched back and forth. The truth is, neither of these common focal lengths are quite "normal" for 35mm. 50mm is just a touch long, and 35mm is just a touch wide. Using the diagonal of the format as the standard, the true normal would be about 42mm (curiously, that's about exactly a 28mm lens on an APS-C digital sensor, although no cameramakers who mainly make APS-C cameras have come out with dedicated 28mm normals for the format). The various oddball "intermediate" focal lengths (38mm, 40mm, 43mm, and 45mm), although much less common, are actually closer to a true normal for the 35mm format.
Why would you want a lens to be "normal," anyway? So what's so special about not being special? Glad you asked.
Taken by Richard Sintchak with a Voigtländer Bessa R3A and 40mm Nokton S.C. on Tri-X.
Getting Past It
These days, we're witnessing an intense interest in digital cameras in online forums. The nexus of this interest, however, is almost always technological, not visual. People want to know about pixel count, bit depth, noise at high ISOs, turn-on time, how many microns each photosite measures, what the buffer speed is, and so forth. This is actually quite typical. Photography has always had a technological side that is endlessly fascinating, and this is as true of digital as it is of traditional photography. What it means is that we photographers often approach photography as if its main interest were technical and technological. We don't look so much at the visual content and the visual effects of pictures as we do their technical properties.
But many of the greatest photographers have "gotten past" the technical aspect of the craft. What I mean by that is that they choose a particular mode of operation, a way of working, and then they concentrate on the visual aspect of the pictures. Think of it. The late Henri Cartier-Bresson was indelibly associated with Leicas and the 50mm lens. Edward Weston made 8x10 contact prints. Eugene Atget and August Sander used more or less the same techniques for most of their important work. Nicholas Nixon and Shelby Lee Adams use large-format cameras with wide-angle lenses to photograph people. We associate Ernst Haas with 35mm Kodachrome, Eliot Porter with the dye transfer process. The point is, these photographers and many other like them don't want you to look at their pictures from a technical perspective. They've chosen the technical properties they like, granted, but they understand that those technical properties are not what make any particular picture good or not-so-good. You don't look at a Cartier-Bresson picture and say, "Gee, look at how sharp that Leica 50mm lens is." You don't look at a Weston and say, "Wow, 8x10 gives you such smooth tonality." The reason you don't is that all Cartier-Bressons were taken with sharp 50s, and all Westons have smooth tonality. It's not that these photographs don't have technical properties, it's that the artists want you to get past that, and look at the subject, the visual content, and the meaning of their photographs.
Illustrations © 2005 by Richard Sintchak
Focal lengths, too, impart specialized properties to pictures. You can zoom way in on something that's far off, get so close to something that it looks almost abstract, or use a lens so wide that distortion is part of the "visual toolkit" you're working with. And there's nothing at all wrong with any of this! I'm not arguing against technical experimentation or wildly unusual focal lengths. What I'm saying is that if you're concerned with extremist focal lengths, then your pictures will display certain properties associated with those focal lengths, and people are more likely to see those properties when they come to your pictures. I came across a delightful set of pictures recently by a young Japanese photographer who had bought himself a Bessa R2 and a 15mm Voigtländer lens. He was clearly having an enormous amount of fun experimenting with what the lens could do—you could just sense his enthusiasm and playfulness from his pictures. But of course many of the pictures deliberately exhibited the properties not so much of the real world as seen by the photographer, but of the real world as seen by the lens.
Moderate focal lengths, to my eye at least, serve in part to remove this sort of "specialness" from pictures. They make the angle-of-view and the type of distortion nondescript. And what this allows, in turn, is a concentration on the visual content of pictures. That's what's so special about not being special.
As the tribe of photographers has gotten much larger, it's become more popular to say things like "40mm is the most boring focal length." But turn that around. Isn't that person saying that the pictures he makes with that focal length are boring? Meaning, he can't make an interesting picture without a more extreme focal length lens? Careful with those epithets, pardner.
So is a 40mm "better" than a 35mm or a 50mm, or any other focal length you like? Of course not. Good artists can "normalize" any way (or many ways) of seeing. Ernst Haas used the very slow (ASA 10) speed of early Kodachrome to explore motion blur. Ralph Gibson uses high contrast to make pictures less atmospheric and more graphic. But if you care to remove obvious focal-length effects from your pictures, and "get past" those properties, so that you and the viewers of your pictures concentrate on what you're looking at, how you see as opposed to how the lens sees, then the 40mm true normal might be, as Sally Mann said to me, about right.
Originally published on The Luminous Landscape. Copyright 2005, 2008 by Michael C. Johnston, All Rights Reserved.